CMU rover, Iris, reaches lunar trajectory despite not landing on moon
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A trip into orbitBut not to the surface of the moon

CMU rover, Iris, reaches lunar trajectory despite not landing on moon

Jewish CMU students help develop a moon exploring rover

CMU students Sonja Michaluk (left) , Zachary Muraskin (center) and Paulo Rotband Marchtein Fisch (right) helped develop the Iris rover that was launched into space on Jan. 8 (Photo by David Rullo)
CMU students Sonja Michaluk (left) , Zachary Muraskin (center) and Paulo Rotband Marchtein Fisch (right) helped develop the Iris rover that was launched into space on Jan. 8 (Photo by David Rullo)

More than 60 years after John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech, Americans are still fascinated by space.

Case in point: Carnegie Mellon University students Paulo Rotband Marchtein Fisch, Zachary Muraskin and Sonja Michaluk were part of the CMU team that developed the Iris moon rover.

The 2.4999 kilogram, or approximately 5-pound, shoe box-sized rover was successfully launched into space, attached to the Peregrine lunar lander on the outside of the Vulcan rocket, on Jan. 8. And while it was unable to land on the moon, it did enter lunar distance and performed several experiments, which the team considers a success.

For both Fisch and Muraskin, the opportunity to work on a project that ended beyond the Earth’s atmosphere has been a dream since childhood.
Fisch said that as a boy growing up in Brazil, he was fascinated by cars and the engineers who designed them.

“I always wanted to be an engineer,” said Fisch, who earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, with a minor in aerospace. “For me, it was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Before moving to Pittsburgh to complete his doctorate in robotics at CMU, Fisch did undergraduate work in both Brazil and Germany. During the pandemic, he worked remotely from Brazil with Iris’ larger older brother, Moon Rover.

Muraskin’s fascination with space began in a very different way: The Connecticut native was interested in the weather patterns he observed during and after Hurricane Katrina.

“That really got me into science, meteorology, and then reading about physics and space,” he said.

Muraskin attended a few courses at CMU before heading to the Air Force Academy, where he pursued nuclear physics.
“That got me hooked,” he recalled.

He ultimately transferred to CMU. Two months later, he received an email asking if he wanted to become an operator of America’s first robotic lunar rover mission.

“I was like, heck yeah,” Muraskin said. “I got involved shortly after and spent winter break here doing a lot of training.”

CMU has a very long history in rover development, Muraskin said, pointing to roboticist and research professor William L. “Red” Whittaker.

Whitaker founded and led CMU’s team in the Google Lunar XPrize in 2007 and continues to work with NASA in the development of autonomous rovers to explore the surface of the moon.

In fact, Fisch said, CMU is the only university in America that has lunar space programs and launches things into lunar space.

“Carnegie Mellon has always been at the forefront of space exploration and that continues today,” Muraskin said.

The pair talked with the Chronicle from the team’s “mission control,” a room designed to look like what appears in countless news reports and movies: Banks of computer monitors face large screens, allowing the team to watch their extraterrestrial missions.

Behind the room, a bank of windows looks down into a facility that would be the envy of any future scientist. A large portion of the room is, at first glance, a large sandbox. Fisch and Muraskin are quick to point out that, while similar to sand, the substance was created to mimic the moon’s surface, complete with craters created by team member Sonja Michaluk, a statistics and machine learning major.

Former and future rovers share space in various parts of the room, as does equipment like vacuum chambers. A vehicle with the NASA logo rests in another section of the room, near wheels for various rovers and helium balloons that are connected to the robots during tests to help simulate the moon’s reduced gravity.

While both Fisch and Muraskin’s presence on the team would make sense to anyone picturing an aerospace squad, Michaluk might prove more puzzling. Her work, though, is vital to what the team is doing.

“I looked at ways we could standardize how we approached mimicking lunar terrain and how we could try to reduce variability and room for bias in our experimentation,” she explained.

As for the rover itself, one of the most remarkable things is, well, how familiar it looks. In fact, to those who have watched television programs like “BattleBots,” where highly weaponized robots fight in a caged ring, Iris might appear downright diminutive. That, though, is by design.

In a world where weight matters, Iris had to come in at under 2.5 kilograms. The team accomplished that with 1 gram to spare. Gone are the days of unlimited budgets, even for those designing robots that will roam the moon, so the rover is made of parts available to anyone who knows what to look for, including the cameras that were intended to send photographs back to the team.

Protecting the robot, and one of the more expensive parts of the design, was a “heat blanket,” that hung around the craft and was attached by a more expensive form of Velcro.

Of course, when you’re designing a robot for the moon’s environment, some things have to be made specifically for the conditions. Traditional grease, for instance, wouldn’t work.

“All that gas that’s in the grease would go out of it,” Fisch said, “so we have to find materials that are not going to have that.”

And yet, even after spending years designing a rover that will last a trip to the moon on the outside of a rocket named Vulcan, attached to the Peregrin lunar lander, designed by the CMU spin off Astrobotic, a trip to the moon isn’t full-proof.

Muraskin said members of the team were in Florida and watched the Jan. 8 lift-off of the new Vulcan rocket.

“It was magnificent,” he said.

Shortly after returning to his hotel and taking a short nap though, he started to get messages that there had been a “significant anomaly.”

The problem was with the lander, meaning Iris wouldn’t reach the surface of the moon. Instead, the team spent time figuring out how it could prove as many of Iris’ systems as possible.

In the end, Iris was able to get 300,000 kilometers from the Earth, meaning it was able to operate in a “lunar trajectory.”

Muraskin said that of all the options available after an actual moon landing, this was the most desirable.

“Of all the worst-case scenarios, this was actually the best one because we got to do things for about 10 days.”

In fact, the statistics the team, including Fisch, Muraskin and Michaluk — all Jewish — earned were impressive.

Muraskin listed the achievements: “The farthest American robotic lunar rover from earth; the first American robotic lunar rover to operate in cislunar space; the first university-operated rover to operate in space, period; America’s first robotic lunar rover to make it to Earth orbit; the first American robotic rover in space to be commanded by university students.”

“Technically, I think we were the first-ever rover to actually operate outside of a spacecraft because most rovers, if not all of them, are encapsulated inside a spacecraft,” he added. “Ours was hanging off the deck.”

And while the Iris team is pleased with results, in space no one can hear you brag. The team continues to work on new projects that might one day explore previously uncharted parts of the lunar south pole. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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